Article 69 – ‘Design: a discussion’ Part 1

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai in this article we discuss the complexities of design, it’s meaning and message what the designer or artist is attempting to impart with their perception and to attempt to make sense of it all in a rational manner.

Introduction – there are two basic principles in understanding design, (a) ‘perception‘ – the act or faculty of perceiving or apprehending by means of the senses or of the mind; cognition. (b) ‘concept ‘ – something conceived in the mind, a thought or notion to test or implement new ideas. These two factors are strongly connected because from what is perceived by the mind can be conceived in other ways or forms.

The arts – to explain the above statement we offer these examples. The Sistine Chapel ceiling (Soffitto della Cappella Sistina), painted by Michelangelo and other leading painters including Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio and Pietro Perugino between 1508 and 1512; a cornerstone work of high renaissance art depicting the human form.

Michelangelo ‘The creation of Adam’

Other painters viewed art in different ways, English artist Laurence Stephen Lowry is famous for painting scenes of life in industrial districts often referred to as ‘matchstick men‘. Spanish painters Pablo Ruiz Picasso a post-impressionist (known as Cubism) and Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech was attracted to Cubism, but moved closer to Surrealism in the late 1920s. American painter Paul Jackson Pollock a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement was widely noticed for his “drip technique” of pouring or splashing liquid household paint onto a horizontal surface, enabling him to view and paint his canvases from all angles.

Perception and concept has had an effect on other art forms, music like painting has undergone changes, classical, the blues of the deep south, big bands including Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller; the music of the swinging sixties to what is being touted today. Fashion, cuisine, architecture and other art forms have been affected by perception and concept through time.

Bonsai horticulture which began in 6th century China has also received its fair share of perception and concept. The first fictional work regarding bonsai ‘The Tale of the Hollow Tree‘, by Utsubo Monogatari originating in the year 970 states “A tree that is left growing in its natural state is a crude thing. It is only when it is kept close to human beings who fashion it with loving care that its shape and style acquire the ability to move one.”

But what is Monogatari saying, does it mean that we can change and fashion our trees into any shape or form as many modern bonsai designers are apt to do, where the designed specimen has little or no resemblance to its wild counterpart. According to American horticulturist John Yoshio Naka “Don’t turn your tree into a bonsai, turn your bonsai into a tree.” A tree that resembles its wild counterpart to some degree, the aim of bonsai is to mimic or copy what we see in nature but in miniature form; no doubt there will be many differences of opinion on this hypothesis.

The catalogue of styles – lists over 30 classic artistic representations with many quite common and others rare due to the complexity of design. We will discuss a few of these classic designs to shed light on what to some may be a little difficult to comprehend starting with the formal upright.

Chokkan – (formal upright) according to the guidelines as depicted by the old masters, the tree has a straight, upright, tapering trunk. Branches progress regularly from the thickest and broadest at the bottom to the finest and shortest at the top. This gives the branches a triangular shape and symmetry with none pointing directly toward the viewer, which is sought after for a formal upright style. There should be strong surface roots (nebari) visible, moving from the base of the trunk downward into the soil and radiating evenly around the trunk.

In looking at the image below the picture on the left an actual living Chokkan bonsai arguably does not conform to the guidelines, because the branches 1. 2. 3. and 4. protrude outside of the triangular shape and symmetry in addition, the foliage is rather overbearing. The composition of tree and pot can be construed as rather mundane, but this is how the designer perceives this specimen to be as a representation of what is found in nature.

Chokkan

In the right picture (same tree) the foliage has been reduced and conforms to the required triangular shape and symmetry. Sharimiki and Jin have been added to the trunk and apex respectively to give the viewer an indication that the tree has befallen some catastrophe at some point. It can be argued that the right hand picture would glean more interest than the left hand picture due to enhanced character, but it all depends on personal design preference; be it acceptable or not.

Fukinagashi – Wind swept – this style describes a tree that appears to be affected by strong winds blowing continuously from one direction, as might shape a tree on a mountain ridge or on an exposed shoreline. The windswept characteristic can be applied to a number of the basic styles, including informal upright, slanting, and semi-cascade, multi-tree bonsai can also be developed with elements of the windswept style.

The image below is of a 10 metre plus conifer growing on the shoreline of a lake in Ontario Canada, the left hand picture depicts it’s current design shape and symmetry due to element onslaught. We know that this tree although leaning to the left will not topple over, because it’s root spread will cover an extensive area and thus stability is ensured. Looking at the right hand branch it appears that there is very little foliage if any and can be deemed surplus to requirements.

If this tree were in miniature form changes could be made for example, the right hand branch has been shortened and Sharimiki has been applied to distract the viewer’s attention away from the straightness of the main trunk, which could be reshaped if needed. The lower branches have been removed, others pruned, these could be wired into shape to create a more compact look. Such simple changes have arguably improved the tree’s overall symmetry and composition keeping it within the wind-swept style. This is only one concept of design and although some might agree with this viewpoint others will differ.

We understand the viewpoints of Utsubo Monogatari and John Yoshio Naka because both have valid argument, but it is you the designer who makes the ultimate decision. In the next discussion on this subject we look at more classic designs, one of them being Penjing landscapes the Vietnamese Hón non bó and Japanese Bonkei versions. Until next time, BW, Nik.

Article 58 – ‘Wiring a Ficus’

Hi, welcome to Taiga Bonzai, in this post we look at an alternative way to wiring a Ficus retusa.

Introduction – This small Ficus ginseng (Ficus retusa) in the Komono class (15cm to 26cm) native to Asia has been pruned many times over the years and the cuttings were preserved by placing them in a glass jar filled with tap water. After a few weeks, the cuttings developed root systems and were planted out in plastic pots and when stable (good evidence of growth) were given to students to practise their bonsai styling skills.

Ficus ginseng

Question – We get questions on styling to which we respond, but we are of a conviction that ‘one learns by doing’ nevertheless, here is a question we received from one of our followers on this very subject. “I wired my Ficus into its intended shape, but when I went to check it weeks later the wires had caused deep grooves in the bark, my question is will these grooves pop back out?

Answer – In short the answer is no, because attention to wiring detail has not been paid, hence the plant is disfigured with bark damage and disruption to the phloem and cambium rendering the plant useless as a potential bonsai; Ficus like many other species of the genus have soft bark and phloem and cambium are easily damaged.

Course of action – Much depends on where these indentations are located be they on the trunk or branch and how long they extend, the unaffected areas can be used for new cuttings, hence your Ficus becomes a donor plant. We realise that this is a set back and not what you want to hear, but in reality there is no option you cannot undo the damage that has been done. However, do not discard the rest of the tree, remove the damaged section/s and let the plant recover; there is a possibility that it may produce new shoots as this species is quite resilient.

A different approach to wiring a ficus – Although native to Asia the genus Ficus is found all over the globe usually as house plants or decorative attractions in shopping malls for example Ficus benjamina and many are used in bonsai. However, they do not take kindly to wiring, because (a) of the soft bark easily damaged (b) they have no dormancy period unlike deciduous species from Europe and North America and (c) they are not hardy. Therefore, one needs to adopt a different approach and that is by using guy wires apposed to actually attaching the wire to the tree. The image below depicts a Pine Pinus sylvestris that has been wired using the guy wire method.

By looking at the image you can see that wire 1. is the anchor holding the tree in it’s container it also counter balances the force as wire 2. is pulling the upper mid section of the trunk down, the same process is repeated for wires 3. and 4. This balance of action and reaction stabilises the tree when a branch or trunk is severely bent, because the inside of the bend is now in compression and the outer radius is now in tension; because for every action there is a reaction. You will also notice there are black rings where wires 1. 2. 3. and 4 are attached, this material is thick felt which, prevents the wires from damaging the bark, phloem and cambium.

Of course this operation was conducted on a sturdy pine that can take this kind of treatment, whereas a ficus cannot nonetheless, it can be done although the amount of tension has to be less severe and the shaping or bending process has to be done gradually. One can shape a ficus quite easily using the guy wire method as it will conform to its given shape in a short space of time depending on the thickness of the trunk or branch; unlike a conifer which takes years.

After a short time period (2 to 3 weeks) loosen the wire to ascertain if the branch is holding it’s new shape, if the operation is a success you can proceed with your next plan of action, if not re-attach the wire and wait a little longer. In addition, ensure you use felt, leather, rubber or some other cushioning material to prevent the wire from damaging the plant. However, if you wish to wire the trunk or branch in the conventional way you can, but use a thicker wire and loosely wire the proposed section into shape, but check it on a weekly basis otherwise you will recreate the same problem.

Another point to consider is the type of style one is aiming for, the following are classic styles: Formal upright (Chokkan), Informal upright (Moyogi), Twin trunk (Sokan) and Slanted (Shakan) are possibilities for this species, but Literati (Bunjin-gi), Semi cascade (Han-kengai), Cascade (Kengai) and Broom (Hokidachi) should be avoided as ficus is not in reality adaptable to these styles; alternatively you can make your own design there is nothing in the rule book which states you cannot as we have done with our specimen depicted above. Until next time, BW, Nik.